In light of my last couple of postings, just to readdress the balance, I thought I would wax lyrical about the things I do like about Russell T Davies’s 21st century reimagining of Doctor Who.
I wasn’t so sure that the Doctor should have very short hair and a leather jacket (he looking more like a Little Hulton drug dealer than any of his Edwardian styled predecessors), but once I heard him dismiss Rose in the first episode of this revived series with the quip, “Go and have your lovely beans on toast,” I knew I would like him.
The detached alien quality of the Doctor is there, and it shines through the rest of the first episode. When the TARDIS transports them from a restaurant to the River Thames, the Doctor impatiently barks, “It disappears there and reappears here. You wouldn’t understand.” This is reminiscent of the First Doctor’s retort in the very, very first episode An Unearthly Child (1963), “It’s not clear, is it? You don’t understand. And I knew you wouldn’t. Never mind.”
And this is what the Doctor should be – alien.
It’s interesting that once he’s spent a period of time alone, as he has in the Series Three debut Smith and Jones, he has lost his humanity again. There’s a scene where Martha closes the eyes of a dead man and covers his face with a blanket, and the Doctor is completely dispassionate. I like this about the 21st century Doctor. He is only human-like when he’s in the company of humans. Once that influence is absent, so is his humanity.
In the second episode of Series One, The End of the World, Russell T Davies presents us with a situation we all learned about at school, and one which I’d always thought would be interesting for the Doctor to visit, namely the death of our planet as it gets engulfed by the expanding sun. It was a treat to see it realised with breathtaking special effects.
The first of the scripts by contributing writers took the form of Mark Gatiss’s expertly crafted The Unquiet Dead. The BBC has always done costume drama particularly well, and so has Doctor Who. Think The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977), The Visitation (1982) and The Curse of Fenric (1989). Gatiss’s story is up there with them, his taste for the language of the 19th century and Charles Dickens is well cultivated. It goes without saying that Simon Callow’s performance as Dickens is sublime.
Paul Cornell’s Father’s Day has real emotional impact. My dad died in 2003, and I have often fantasised about going back to the 1970s and meeting him as an adult, and he not realising who I am. So this episode mirrored the fantasy for me.
I was thrilled to know that Robert Shearman’s radio play, Jubilee, starring Colin Baker (a straight to CD release by Big Finish Productions) was going to be adapted to television. The idea of a lone Dalek being tortured by humans and then pretending to be vulnerable until it can assert itself was a truly chilling one. The bare bones of the idea surfaced in Shearman’s Dalek and served as the perfect way to reintroduce the metal monsters.
The voice of the Dalek being supplied by a man who has obsessed about the creatures since childhood, namely one Nicholas Briggs, was inspired casting. The writer/producer/voice artist knows all the subtleties and nuances of the Dalek range, he having analysed and assimilated the best performances of his predecessors.
Russell T Davies gives us a cheap filler episode in The Long Game (a simple set dressed differently to double up as two places), and yet, thanks to some stellar performances from the guest cast, especially Simon Pegg, it doesn’t seem cheap at all.
Possibly the best story of that first series is The Empty Child by Steven Moffatt. The little boy in the gas mask constantly asking, “Are you my mummy?” as he wanders around war torn London is the stuff nightmares are made of. John Barrowman puts in a great performance as new semi-regular Captain Jack too.
In the series finale, The Parting of the Ways, Russell gives us a number of fan fantasies come true. Those of us who grew up on the original Doctor Who often dreamed of legions of Daleks swarming across space, but had never actually seen it realised on screen until now.
We had been mesmerised by the idea of the TARDIS materialising around another object so that it appears inside the craft (a trick first performed in original series stories The Time Monster and Logopolis), and we had often fantasised about it materialising around a person. Again, it is in this story that we actually see it, as the Doctor chances materialising his ship around Rose to save her from the Daleks – the police box forming around her, and from the interior perspective, Rose solidifying in the control room. Superb!
We all imagined the Dalek Emperor from The Evil of the Daleks (1967) to be of godlike proportions, but only in Parting is it actually realised as such.
And as the Doctor triggers the regeneration process within himself at the adventure’s climax, he actually tells Rose what is going to happen, that he is going to change, that he will never look at her through those eyes again and not with “this daft old face”. He prepares Rose, and the audience, for the shocking change of appearance and persona just ahead. The transformation itself is stunning, the metamorphosis for the first time in the series’ long history taking place while the Doctor is standing up.
Davies’s The Christmas Invasion is a riot, but my favourite aspect of it is the way Rose deals with the loss of her Doctor. The man in the bed (David Tennant) is nothing like him, and at one point she breaks down, lamenting, “He left me, Mum. He left me.” This again is Davies’s writing at its best, and demonstrates admirably why it is good to have a fan of the original show at the helm of the 21st century version. He is someone who has thought long and hard about the conventions of Doctor Who, the changeover of one leading man to another being one of the prime examples, and he gives them an emotional context that was rarely seen in the 1963-89 series.
My favourite stories from the second series are New Earth by Russell T Davies, School Reunion by Toby Whitehouse (great to see Sarah-Jane meet the Doctor again – and as with the regeneration, it’s an emotional reaction that we get), Rise of the Cybermen by Tom MacRae (adapted from Big Finish radio play Spare Parts, by Marc Platt), Steven Moffatt’s The Girl in the Fireplace, and The Impossible Planet by Matthew Jones.
Of Series Three, I love Smith & Jones and Gridlock (the latter being very similar in style to the kind of oddball adventure we might have seen in the Sylvester McCoy era, but with a few quid spent on it) by Russell T Davies, Daleks in Manhattan by Helen Raynor, Human Nature (the Doctor becomes human in wartime Britain and falls in love) by Paul Cornell, Blink by Steven Moffatt and Utopia by Russell T Davies.
Of the Doctor’s companions, Billie Piper did a great job as girl next door Rose Tyler (I love her reaction to the inside of the TARDIS when she first goes in), but it’s Freema Agyeman who has really won me over as Martha Jones. She’s contemporary, but smart with it.
I’m not sure what I think of Catherine Tate’s character Donna Noble, she having only appeared in the one adventure to date (The Runaway Bride). I guess I’ll have to wait for the 2008 series to form a proper opinion.
As for the two Doctors, David Tennant looks more like the Doctor of old with his suit, trainers, and World War Two trench coat, but I think Christopher Eccleston was probably more in key with the original character.
There are a good number of things that I don’t like about modern Doctor Who. But I shall save those for another time.
I await the 2007 Christmas special, Voyage of the Damned, with bated breath.